Tim is the set designer for The Art of Living. Here, we asked him a few questions about musicals, the show, and his design inspirations and influences.
Q: What is your favorite thing about working on a musical?
A: I like the visual shorthand that is demanded by multiple scenes required for most musicals. The stage cannot show all of the locations as easily as film can show simply with a film cut. The stage demands imagination that scenic elements stand for a whole world. An example frequently used in stage musicals is a bench and station sign that stands for a whole train station platform.
The playwright, Dan Gallagher, has chosen a single place for this play, which avoids the problem of multiple scene changes. But even a single setting uses abstractions. On stage we cannot show, as in a film, an establishing shot of approaching the mansion. At this writing I am considering using black panels to show that the mansion is in a distant place.
The black panels up stage right do not literally show a forest. But because trees are painted on the panels and they overlap one another they show that there are layers of trees outside the mansion, and by inference, that the house is in a remote location, deep in the woods.
The producer as requested that the jazz combo be seen above the setting. Additionally, the playwright wants to include the grand piano on the stage. Both of these requests offer challenges, but there are plenty of precedents for placing musicians in unusual places in modern musicals.
Q: What is your favorite thing about community theater?
A: Community theater says “We can do this here!” The community audience is always thrilled to see a strong performance by one of their own. I am especially attracted to this project because Dan Gallagher is a community member who is a talented playwright and lyricist.
Q: What got you started working in theater?
A: I gave magic shows and puppet plays to my little brother and sister in the milk house on the farm near Oberlin, Ohio where I grew up. Not knowing any better, they were amazed at my fledgling dramatic efforts. Every year I also was frantic about decorating the Christmas tree.
Q: What’s your favorite show?
A: The favorite show is always the one that I am working on now. The process of collaboration has an energy that has drawn me out of retirement.
Q: How did you get involved with The Art of Living?
A: My wife Laura was in the first community production of The Art of Living at Clinton Community College about a year ago. Sometimes I stayed around to watch rehearsals. I noticed that Dan Gallagher was painting the set after rehearsals. He accepted my help and I became part of the team.
Q: Are there specific set design concerns when working on a musical as opposed to other theatrical productions?
A: Dan has set this musical in the reception room of an old mansion. So multiple scenes, as in most musicals, are not a problem. But each scene design has its own issues. Currently I am working on balancing the ghost atmosphere with musical comedy high spirits.
Q: To what degree is your design influenced by the music?
A: At this writing, original music is being written expressly for the re-staging of this play; the composing is just beginning, so the music is not an influence on the scene design. I have, however, heard parts of three songs. The jazz score reminds me of the hit musical film La La Land. Not bad company! I look forward to watching the musical transformation of the play.
At the Clinton Community College production, Dan set the lyrics to popular music in the manner of the French Boulevard Theater. I loved the music first time around, partly because I knew that Dan was recasting some of my favorite songs with new lyrics.
Q: What were your sources of inspiration for the set design on The Art of Living?
A: Design inspiration comes from everywhere. I have a stack of books, as do most designers. Pinterest is a web-based source of design research that is new to me.
Q: What is the nature of the designer / director collaboration?
A: Each collaboration is unique. Usually I sit with the director and we share images from books while we talk about the play – what is required and what is desired.
This is the first time I have collaborated with a playwright who is both an artist and a designer in his own right. Dan had already designed this show at Clinton Community College. A distinct advantage of working with Dan is that he can sketch ideas in 1/4” scale. He can also read my drawings. This makes communication easy for us. I think Dan choosing to work with another designer is a wise choice because, if all goes well, it will involve richer design decisions than just Dan or myself working alone on the design.
Although I have never heard of an incident in theater of a scene designer working with another scene designer, there is precedent for this kind of relationship in film. It is common practice that film directors have someone else edit their films because collaborating with a film editor enriches the choices. For another example, novelists seldom write screenplays based on their own novels. Deciding what to leave out or alter from one’s own work is difficult. Part of my function is to add and subtract design ideas. I can also add my years of experience in design for the stage.
Q: Is your job done once the performances begin, or do you continue to make tweaks and adjustments throughout the run of a show?
A: This production will be a four day run including school previews so there is little tweaking of the setting except possible repairs or touch-ups. I will be with the show every night.
Q: Have you ever had the chance to design the same play for two different directors? If so, what was most surprising about the experience?
A: I have never designed the same play with different directors. I am guessing that the question may really be about how a design metaphor influences decisions. A design metaphor is a concise statement of the interpretation of the play. I learned, when I was a college student, that a good metaphor guides all design decisions.
My design career has been mostly with college, community, and regional theater. Each of these theaters is a poor theater trying to look rich. In each situation the design metaphor comes in part from what materials and crew that are available. Finding a design metaphor, in my experience, has never been a purely academic exercise.
A college production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind as an example of what I mean by design decisions coming from the materials at hand. In this case the costume stock became the design metaphor. Over the years I have seen many versions of this play at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada which made me aware of a range of possibilities for interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As both the director and scene designer of this play at Plattsburgh State, I could choose any approach I wanted within the usual limitations of our resources.
I wanted to give the costumer a break from the large build of recent productions so I chose a design concept that utilized the costume stock that we had in the vaults. We had a lot of tie-dyed clothes and double knit suits in storage. We also had just been gifted bridesmaids dresses and tuxes from the owners of a bridal boutique that was restocking its inventory. So I developed a concept that largely used the stock that we had on hand.
I came up with the metaphor that this play is ‘a fable of President Kennedy and the hippie era.’ The opening scene had, as the duke of the court, an actor who spoke with a Massachusetts accent and the queen evoked Marilyn Monroe in a cream colored bridal gown and bleach blond wig. Titania, the queen of the fairies, wore white patent leather boots and looked like Mama Cass Elliot from The Mamas and The Papas. The fairies themselves were, you guessed it, hippies camping in the woods.
For me, choosing a design metaphor is never strictly abstract but also an acknowledgment of the resources available. At this writing I am learning the scope of this new design project, The Art of Living.
Tim Palkovic is Professor Emeritus of Theater Arts at Plattsburgh State University where he served as a theater teacher, designer and director of plays. Tim received his PhD in Theater Arts from from The University of Minnesota in 1977 and BA and MA from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. He served, during a sabbatical, as illustrator and designer for the Howard Harrill Company in North Carolina. He has also designed for the Depot Theater and Chazy Music Theater.
Palkovic is active in the community, serving on the Board of the Kent-Delord House Museum, portraying Henry Delord in first person, and performing original puppet shows in a walk-about booth for The Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration. He has occasionally acted and sung in choirs. He remembers fondly playing Luther Billis with George Hearn in “South Pacific” in Hawkins Hall.
In 2014 he wrote and performed in an adaptation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at the Plattsburgh Memorial Chapel. In the summer Tim can be seen about town painting en-plein air with his easel and poch’e box. He is an active member of the figure drawing group that meets at the Strand Theater Center.